A lot has changed in the four decades since psychologist Georgette Constantinou arrived at Akron Children’s Hospital.

“The hospital was moving from a well-loved community hospital and over the next couple decades it grew into the world-class institution it is,” she recalled.

The world has changed, too, with the internet, smartphones and social media making those already difficult adolescent years even more challenging for kids and parents.

It used to be, she said, “if kids were having a bad day, the world wouldn’t know. If as a teenager I made a misstep, my friends might know, or my immediate circle might know. But everybody in the world wouldn’t know.

“We are giving this potential weapon to kids who have limited judgment … in the moment and they can’t really calculate the long-term consequences. Suddenly, they have this little machine at their disposal,” she said.

Constantinou, 69, is retiring Wednesday after nearly 40 years as a pediatric psychologist at Akron Children’s and, most recently, administrative director of the division of pediatric psychiatry and psychology.

Leaders at the hospital and in the community say she leaves behind a legacy of advocating for and developing mental health services to care for children and their families.

“For many people, she has been the single most important person in the arena of advocating for children’s mental health,” said Dave Lieberth, a longtime community advocate, lawyer and former deputy mayor.

Constantinou was active in coordinating work among county advocates and agencies and their work with neglected and abused children, Lieberth said.

“Summit County is a good place to be a child. We have this safety net … and this aura of cooperation and collaboration,” Lieberth said. “Georgette is responsible for much of the safety net that exists today for children who are neglected or abused.”

Akron Children’s Hospital Chief Executive Officer Bill Considine, who has one less year of tenure than Constantinou with 38 years, said it will be difficult to imagine the hospital without her.

“She has been a ‘true north’ voice in telling me what our patients and their families need, and always sees the world through their eyes,” Considine said. “It would be impossible to guess how many lives she has touched, and how many children and teens are now successful adults, better able to cope with the complexities of today’s world because of her.”

Constantinou was one of the first liaisons with the Parent Advisory Council, giving patients’ parents a voice to hospital administrators.

She also had a hand in developing many behavioral health programs and services, including the hospital’s partial hospital and intensive outpatient programs, behavioral health emergency services and the recent expansion of the inpatient behavioral health unit. She advocated for the creation of the NeuroDevelopmental Science Center, the consultation/liaison service and the model of having pediatric psychologists embedded in clinical programs to help children — and their families — deal with ongoing difficulties of chronic illnesses such as cancer and diabetes.

In addition, she has worked to include a mental health therapist at every Akron Children’s Hospital primary-care office to make it easy for families to get easy access to integrated care.

“I think I’m proudest of standing for patients and families and their needs no matter what. I was always being honest with the hospital about what the patients and families need,” said Constantinou said in a recent interview as she reflected on her career and the changes in children’s behavioral health since she came in July of 1978.

Parents need to step away from wanting to be their child’s friend, be aware of what their kids are doing and make tough decisions and hold their kids accountable, she said.

She said she is a big proponent of something that has been lost with many families — family time, whether that is a shared meal or other time together.

Constantinou has “a passion for children and parents and what’s needed for what healthy families need to grow — that every child in this situation not only comes with physical problems or challenges, but they also come with emotional and family issues as well, that’s part of treating the whole child,” said Dr. Stephen Crosby, director of the hospital’s division of pediatric psychiatry and psychology and Constantinou’s co-leader for 15 years.

Constantinou’s first time applying for a grant was about 10 years ago when she asked, with Crosby, the then Margaret Clark Morgan Foundation (recently renamed Peg’s Foundation) for $1.2 million to establish a special program within the emergency room for children in a mental health crisis. The Psychiatric Intake Response Center (PIRC) allows for an evaluation 24 hours a day to help families determine the next step for their child.

Having that specialized part of the ER is invaluable to families in crisis, Peg’s Foundation President Rick Kellar said.

“If you break your arm, you go in [to the ER] and get care and come out with a pink or blue cast. If you go in and you’ve cut yourself or there’s self harm, you walk into the emergency room and there’s an emotional need and first aid that’s required for that adolescent,” Kellar said.

He had no idea when he was at the ribbon cutting for the new program funded by his organization that a few months later he would be there with his own teen daughter in a mental health crisis.

“Thank goodness that obviously those services were there,” he said.

An Akron native and Firestone High School graduate, Constantinou went to Vassar College and then to Ohio State University for her doctorate. While working in Chicago, she was asked to come back to Akron to take a one-year position at Akron Children’s.

“The truth of the matter is it was not my intention to come back here,” she said.

She met her husband of 35 years, Stavros Constantinou, a geography professor at Ohio State’s Mansfield campus, and they raised two now-grown children in Akron.

Constantinou credits Considine for giving her full support and “understanding the needs of behavioral health and really allowing us to grow and develop over all of these years.”

Constantinou said she’s not sure about her post-retirement plans. She will stay on as an on-call retiree at primary-care sites for children.

“I’m going to look for my next act. I’ve been to Ukraine and Belarus to help countries that were coming out of the fall of Communism with huge drug and alcohol problems. How do you care for traumatized children? For my second act, I have to let that evolve.”

Medical writer Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty

“For many people, she has been the single most important person in the arena of advocating for children’s mental health.”

Dave Lieberth

Community advocate, lawyer and former deputy mayor